Nuclear power is dying. Can radical innovation save it?
Among experts who study energy policy, there’s remarkably widespread agreement that tackling climate change would be much, much easier if we could quickly and cheaply build lots of new nuclear power plants. It’s not always a popular argument, but it’s a compelling one on its face.
This paper from Jesse Jenkins and Samuel Thernstrom offers a great overview of the relevant research. Yes, it’s absolutely possible to imagine a carbon-free grid powered 100 percent by renewables like wind, solar, and hydropower. But it’s also undeniably hard to juggle intermittent sources of electricity. Mixing in nuclear plants (or fossil plants that bury their CO2) that can run at all hours alongside renewables could greatly lower the cost of deep decarbonization — at least in theory.
The practical flaw in any pro-nuclear argument, however, is that very few countries are actually building new reactors anymore — and many are downsizing their existing fleets. In Germany and Japan, public opinion has turned sharply against nuclear. In the US and Britain, nuclear programs have been plagued by construction overruns, high upfront costs, and regulatory roadblocks. While China and South Korea are still going strong, the world on net is no longer building enough new reactors to offset coming retirements:
So what would it take to turn this situation around and revive nuclear power as a vital weapon against climate change? Broadly speaking, there are two options here. Neither is guaranteed to succeed, but for people worried about the herculean efforts needed to stop global warming, they’re both worth considering seriously:
1) The first option would be for governments and industry to clear away the (many!) obstacles hindering construction of new light-water reactors, the most common type of reactor built in the 20th century. This technology is proven to work, after all — it supplies one-fifth of America’s electricity — and South Korea has figured out how to build such reactors affordably. So more nations would need to mimic South Korea, relying on standardized designs and economies of scale to drive down costs and expand their nuclear fleets. Michael Shellenberger, a pro-nuclear advocate with Environmental Progress, has made this case eloquently here.
Yet this first option is easier said than done. In many countries, it would require serious market and policy reforms, and perhaps streamlining regulations around light-water reactors. It would also likely require a tidal change in public opinion about nuclear, allaying concerns about waste and safety. Green groups would probably have to soften their opposition to the technology.
2) Increasingly, many nuclear advocates have come to believe those political hurdles are too formidable. So they’ve placed their faith in a second option: radical innovation. The DC-based think tank Third Way has been leading this push for years, documenting the 50+ startups in the US working on clever alternatives to the traditional, hulking light-water reactor — advanced nuclear designs that, ideally, could prove smaller, safer, more flexible, and ultimately cheaper, perhaps even with less waste.
These ideas would need an initial jolt of government support to come to market, but the hope is that new, small, advanced reactors, by virtue of design, could overcome the social and economic barriers crippling the nuclear industry.
This innovation option is gaining popularity among both parties in Congress, and it’s nicely articulated in two recent reports — this one by Third Way’s Erin Burns and Todd Allen, and this one by the Breakthrough Institute’s Jessica Lovering, Loren King, and Ted Nordhaus. Both lay out policies that could help bring advanced reactors to fruition, from licensing reform to targeted aid from the Department of Energy. The latter draws analogies to federal support for fracking, drug research, and even private spaceflight.
Of course, there are no guarantees that advanced nuclear tech will pan out anytime soon. And, as Nordhaus told me in an interview, it’s quite possible that even these newer reactor designs could run into the same pitfalls facing existing nuclear, like public opposition or stifling new regulation. “None of that goes away overnight,” he says. “But if we want to reset public perception of nuclear, I think starting with technologies that are quite different from today’s designs is our best bet.”
So those are two big ideas on offer for reviving nuclear power: Figure out how to more widely deploy a tested 20th-century technology that’s run into serious trouble, or invent something vastly superior. They are, in essence, two very different visions of the current political landscape. Below, I’ll flesh out each option, probing some pros and cons — and then ask what happens if they both stumble.
Option No. 1: Try to scale up existing nuclear tech that we know works
The best argument for doubling down on 20th-century nuclear power technology is that we know it works. France and Sweden built some of the cleanest grids in the developed world by scaling up nuclear power very rapidly in the 1970s and ’80s. If the rest of the world merely copied what Sweden did, one recent study in PLOS One found, we could eliminate all fossil fuels from electricity in just 25 to 34 years.
But right now, nuclear power faces several massive roadblocks to such an expansion. First, the meltdowns at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011 have turned public opinion sharply against nuclear. While no one died in either accident — and while nuclear is vastly safer than coal or natural gas — these meltdowns intensified opposition to nuclear, and led to strict regulations making new reactors more costly. Some countries, like Germany, are actively trying to phase out all nuclear plants.
Second, current nuclear reactors are very large by design, requiring huge upfront costs, which means they’re tricky to finance. In recent decades, they’ve also been plagued by delays and construction overruns — a terrifying prospect to investors thinking about borrowing billions of dollars upfront to build these things. In many places, it’s just easier and safer to invest in smaller natural gas, wind, or solar plants (especially given public subsidies for the latter).
Finally, nuclear’s woes seem to be getting worse over time, not better. To allay public fears of meltdowns, the industry developed new “Generation III reactors” that featured intricate new safety systems. That includes four new AP1000 reactors currently being built in Georgia and South Carolina. But like many first-of-a-kind projects, these new reactors have faced early missteps and delays, a disaster given the size of the investments at stake. Toshiba’s Westinghouse, the company building these AP1000s, is now filing for bankruptcy over its struggles. And, even if these four units get built, it’s unlikely we’ll see more AP1000s built in the United States anytime soon.
There is, however, an intriguing exception to nuclear’s current woes. South Korea has figured out how to build light-water reactors on time and under budget — and they’ve gotten quite good at it. The secret? The country’s state-owned utility initially settled on a single Generation II reactor design, the OPR-1000, that was based on proven technology and then built it over and over and over, learning from experience as it went. The country also had stable regulations and a highly skilled workforce. Now that South Korea is adept at building OPR-1000s, it’s gradually moving on to a newer Generation III design, with plans to build seven in Korea and the United Arab Emirates.
“We can learn from the Koreans,” writes Michael Shellenberger in a long recent essay on Toshiba/Westinghouse’s woes. To revive nuclear, countries and industry would need to likewise settle on a proven light-water reactor design and build it again and again to drive down costs — as opposed to the current situation, where countries like the United Kingdom are pursuing a welter of new designs. Only once a global supply chain is reestablished will it be time to experiment with incremental new models.
“Nations must work together to develop a long-term plan for new nuclear plant construction to achieve economies of scale,” Shellenberger writes. “Such a plan would allow for certainty, learning-by-doing, cost declines and lower financing costs.”
It’s a forceful call to action. Yet it’s also clear that this would require sweeping policy and political shifts in many countries. The US, for example, doesn’t have a single state-owned utility like South Korea does — it has balkanized state electricity markets and deregulated utilities, which has made standardization and coordination on nuclear power far more difficult. This vision would also likely require significant government investment in nuclear, at least early on. France’s nuclear build-out, remember, was guided by the heavy hand of the state.
Just as importantly, such a build-out would likely require changing public opinion about nuclear power in the United States, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere — overcoming long-standing (but often unfounded) concerns around radiation and waste. It would require persuading regulators that existing light-water reactor technology is already safe enough and shouldn’t be bogged down by shifting requirements that drive up costs.
It’d take too long to delve into all those issues here, and I won’t hazard a guess as to whether these changes are feasible. But they’re certainly daunting, which is why many nuclear advocates now think radical innovation is a better way forward…
Option No. 2: Rely on radical innovation to overcome nuclear’s woes
In their paper, “How to Make Nuclear Innovative,” the Breakthrough Institute authors argue that a massive scale-up of existing light-water reactors is unlikely today (outside of a few countries like South Korea or China). Such a push, they write, would require “reversing robust political and economic trends” in places like the US or Europe, such as liberalized electricity markets and declining public investment.
“If we treated climate change like it was an incoming asteroid, then we might embark on a crash program of public investment in nuclear the way France and Sweden did,” says Nordhaus. “But I just don’t think we’re going to do that.”